Many of us find that we experience more health problems—some requiring regular medical treatment—as we age. For older adults, it’s important to remember:

  1. The more medications (prescription, over-the-counter [OTC], dietary supplements, etc.) you take, the higher the risk for harmful drug interactions.
  2. The normal effects of aging can also increase the risk for unplanned and unwanted drug interactions.
  3. The benefits of taking medicine should outweigh the risks.
  4. Good communication with your health care team can help prevent problems with medication(s).

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), normal body changes that occur with age can affect the way medications are absorbed and used in several ways, increasing the risk for drug interactions.

Weight gain or weight loss can increase or decrease the amount of medicine you need, and alter the length of time the drug stays in your system. Changes in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also called the digestive system, can affect the amount of time it takes for the drug to enter your bloodstream. Circulation may slow down, affecting the amount of time it takes for medicine to reach the liver and kidneys. Liver and kidney function may also decrease, affecting the way the medication is broken down (metabolized) and eliminated from the body.

Types of Drug Interactions

Remember, interactions can occur with any type of drug: prescription medications, over-the-counter (OTC) products, dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals), herbal preparations, eye drops, skin creams, and so on.

  • Drug-drug interactions occur when two or more medications react, causing undesirable or harmful effects. In some cases, the action and/or strength of the medication(s) is increased or decreased. In other cases, the combination of drugs results in unpleasant or even dangerous side effects.
  • Drug-medical condition interactions occur when a known or unknown health problem causes a harmful or unwanted reaction to a certain medication.
  • Drug-food interactions occur when a medication reacts with certain foods or beverages, when food in the GI tract affects drug absorption, or medications affect the way nutrients are absorbed and used in the body.
  • Drug-alcohol interactions are very common and the problem often is compounded in older adults. The effects of alcohol, as well as the effects of medication and alcohol together, can change with age. Problems that many people associate with medication—loss of memory or coordination, irritability, etc.—actually may be related to the drug-alcohol combination.

About Drug Side Effects

Anything we take—from prescription medicines to OTC remedies—has to potential to cause unexpected and/or unwanted symptoms. Most of the time, side effects aren’t serious and they can be controlled or managed; but sometimes, they can be severe and serious.

It’s important to pay close attention to how a medication makes you feel. Keep track of all side effects and talk to your health care team (doctors, nurses, physician assistant, pharmacist) about them. This is especially important when you first start taking a new drug, but remember, medication side effects can change over time and can be affected by other factors (e.g., aging, variations in diet or routine).

Report all side effects, even minor ones, to your doctor. If you experience a serious drug reaction—trouble breathing or speaking; swelling of the tongue, lips, or eyes; severe itching, flushing, or hives; weakness or faintness; abnormal heart rate—call 911.

Communicate with Your Health Care Providers

Be sure to follow your health care team’s recommendations regarding your routine medical care. Keep all appointments and take a list of questions and concerns with you to appointments. It also may be helpful to have a family member or close friend come with you to help you understand what is discussed.

In addition to any drug side effects that you experience, share the following information with your doctor(s):

  • Medical history (past and present health conditions, allergies, etc.)
  • All medications (including prescription and OTC pain relievers, antacids, laxatives, eye drops, topical creams and ointments, supplements, etc.)
  • Eating habits and lifestyle
  • If you have trouble telling your medications apart, trouble taking your medicine (e.g., difficulty swallowing pills), trouble remembering to take your medication(s), or problems paying for your medication

If possible, use one pharmacy for all of your medications. Your pharmacist may be able to track all medicines—prescription and OTC—using a computer and can watch for potential interactions.

If you’re having problems with your medication(s), your health care provider or pharmacist may be able to provide tips to help make compliance easier for you. He or she may be able to recommend a different medication that better meets your needs, a lower-cost generic version of the drug, etc.

Caution: Do not buy medicines on the internet without checking to make sure the website carries the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program seal of approval. This ensures that the site is licensed and has been reviewed, inspected, and approved by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. For more information, please read Risks of Online Pharmacies.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 12 Aug 2015

Last Modified: 14 Aug 2015